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Recording

Pohle: Liebesgesänge

Benjamin Lyko, Alex Potter, e.g.baroque
61:19
audite aud 97.803
 
While Pohle’s instrumental music is gaining popularity (partly through my own efforts to publish his surviving output, as well as his complete church music, in collaboration with Gottfried Gille and Anna-Juliane Peetz-Ullman), his other output is relatively unknown. The present CD presents a set of 12 love songs for altos with a pair of violins and continuo, originally dedicated to the composer’s new employer, Wilhelm VI of Hesse-Kassel. These are not duets in the sense of lovers singing to one another. Rather, the two voices present the same texts in alternation, imitation, and intertwining counterpoint. Sometimes, they are strophic with violin ritornelli; in others, Pohle uses the same bassline but varies the melodic line (much as Buxtehude would later do in “Membra Jesu nostri”), while the violins join with the voices in yet others. And the violin parts are not mere fillers – the 11th song, “Will sie nicht”, demands some very virtuosic scales! Paul Fleming’s texts tell of his unhappy love life; the first sister that he fell in love with (in Tallinn, as Reval is known to English speakers) married someone else in his absence, then on his way to marry her sister, he died, aged only 30. They are printed in the booklet without translations, which unfortunately – I suspect – will put some people off buying what is a fine CD. Lyko and Potter’s voices are a good match, the former possibly a little edgy at the top of his range. Both declaim the texts well and produce a lovely warm sound. The sequence of songs is broken by the first of a set of 12 trio sonatas by Pohle’s successor as Kapellmeister in Halle, Johann Philipp Krieger. There was space on the disc for more of the set (which has been recorded complete).

Apologies to the musicians and the recording company for the delay in reviewing this wonderful recording; I have just found it in a box that was put in my attic (and “lost”!) when I moved house.

Brian Clark

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Recording

O Jesulein

A German Baroque Christmas oratorio
Clematis
71:23
Ricercar RIC444
 
Rather than an oratorio in the strict sense, this gorgeous disc offers up a selection of beautiful settings of texts that tell the Christmas story by some of the next composers of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Beginning with the Coronation of the Virgin, we have the Annunciation, music for the angels, the shepherds and the adoration, the angels appear to Joseph, then the Magi arrive, followed by the Presentation in the Temple, then “fast forward” to Jesus preaching there, and finally some general rejoicing. Much of the repertoire will be unfamiliar to most readers – though as popular in their day as their now better-known contemporaries, Michael Praetorius, Buxtehude and Schütz, the likes of Schelle, Hammerschmidt and Briegel are shockingly neglected nowadays, let alone Christoph Bernhard, Christian Flor and David Pohle. Six singers (SScTTB) and 10 instrumentalists (on strings, recorders, bassoons and crumhorns – as well as schalmey, bombard and rackett!) mix and match as the programme proceeds, and there is not a weak link among them. The voices combine beautifully – try the Gesualdo-like passage in Andreas Hammerschmidt’s “Ach mein herzliches Jesulein” for proof – then relax into the warmth of the string consort at the opening of Tunder’s “Ein kleines Kindelein”. Then get set for the crumhorns in Praetorius’ “Puer natus in Bethlehem”, which weren’t quite as rollicking as I’d expected, but the reedy sound was perfect. Some works are performed purely instrumentally. The informative booklet note is given in English, French and German. For the sung texts and their translations, you’ll have to go to the record company’s website to download a PDF (no great hardship!) If you need a musical background when wrapping Christmas presents or while stirring the Christmas cake for the 20th time, let me recommend the many forgotten gems on this beautiful CD.
Apologies to the musicians and the recording company for the delay in reviewing this wonderful recording; I have just found it in a box that was put in my attic (and “lost”!) when I moved house.
Brian Clark
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Recording

Mogens Pedersøn: Pratum spirituale

Motets & Hymns
Weser-Renaissance Bremen, Manfred Cordes
60:15
cpo 555 216-2
 
If you have heard of this Danish composer at all, it will almost certainly be through his madrigals. Like many a northern European disciple of the Gabrielis in Venice, his “right of passage” publication was a book of secular music to demonstrate his complete immersion in the Italian style of day. Less well known – but equally impressed for combining that with the needs of the Lutheran church (again, like many of his contemporaries) was his 1620 “Pratum spirituale”, a collection of “masses, psalms and motets… for use in Denmark and Norway”. This engaging recording (you should never expect any less from these forces!) presents a selection of pieces, including a mass for five voices, Latin motets and hymns in Danish. Some are performed tutti, some with solo voice(s) and groups of strings (violin with gambas) or winds (cornetto with sackbutts and dulcian) and continuo, sometimes varying the scoring of the various verses of the hymns. (The booklet listing is wrong for “Ad te levavi”, as only one singer is credited, where I can hear two.) The booklet notes mention Venetian two-choir writing several times, but do not expect to hear any here; “Pratum spirituale” is for five voices. This is a valuable project for illustrating the performance of Latin-texted music (including that mass with its curtailed Credo and Benedictus-less Sanctus!) within Lutheran liturgies, and also for confirming the quality of Pederson’s output.
 
Apologies to the musicians and the recording company for the delay in reviewing this wonderful recording; I have just found it in a box that was put in my attic (and “lost”!) when I moved house.
 
Brian Clark
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Recording

Biber: Sonatæ Tam Aris, quam Aulis servientes

Harmonie Universelle, Florian Deuter, Mónica Waisman
77:21
Accent ACC 24386
 
It has been some years since a new recording of this set came to the market. It is the first that I have which also includes the trumpet duets, and (I think!) the first that uses a proper church organ in the continuo group. The 12 duos are interspersed (and not in their original order) between groups of the ensemble sonatas, which are played in the printed order. The trumpet playing (by Hans-Martin Rux-Brachtendorf and Astrid Brachtendorf) is excellent throughout. So, too, is the string playing, though I would have liked a little more information about the instruments used; in this repertoire, I don’t think the “violas” should all be the standard instrument we know today, as indicated by the differing clefs, and – rather than a “cello” – I believe that the lowest stringed instrument should be what we’ve come to call a “bass violin”. Without an instrumentarium in the booklet, it is impossible to be sure. The only relevant comment on the scoring concerns which keyboards are appropriate, and doesn’t mention lutes at all… Christoph Sommer – whose name is omitted on the case, but appears in the booklet – does an excellent job of placing chords, but sometimes lets a flourish get the better of him here or there; with only one continuo part-book, how would a theorbist and full church organist managed to share? On that point, I’m sorry that we don’t get to hear more of the organ – the soundscape definitely favours the strings. Of course, that is where the detail of Biber’s endlessly inventive music is. Even so, I would have liked to hear a little more – could some of the pieces not have been played just with organ, and others just with theorbo. Or even, dare I say it, harpsichord? I don’t want to end on a negative, though; this is superb music, superbly played. Don’t miss this recording, even if you already have a rival version!
Brian Clark
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Recording

Smock Alley

Irlandiani
61:15
FHR 144

This delightful CD juxtaposes traditional Irish music with the music of Italian masters, some of whom worked in Ireland. At the heart of the programme are the six duos for two cellos by Tommaso Giordani, who spent long periods of his life in Dublin as musical director of the Theatre in Smock Alley, and in whose music can be heard the influence of the traditional music he would have heard around him. Born in Dublin, the organist Thomas Roseingrave provides a further link with Italian music, travelling to Venice and encountering the Scarlatti family and becoming obsessed with the music of Domenico Scarlatti, which he published with a charming musical introduction of his own composition – it is recorded here followed by two of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Francesco Geminiani lived in Dublin several times and indeed died there in 1762 – he is represented by a cello sonata op 5/1. It is fascinating to have confirmed the extent to which Dublin was an international musical crucible in the years following Handel’s Messiah performances there. Irlandiani play all this music with an elegant musicality, and wisely don’t overplay the ‘celtic’ aspects of the traditional music, even when they are joined by Irish flautist Eimear McGeown. The inclusion of a composition by the group’s lead cellist Carina Drury, lovely as it is, is maybe a bit of an indulgence with its completely different idiom – better maybe to have ended the CD with the spirited account of The Rakes of Westermeath? On the other hand, one of the highlights for me was Drury’s imaginative arrangement of a glee by Francis Ireland (Hutcheson) To Sleep  – Hutcheson was indeed a lad o’ pairts, a lecturer in chemistry at Trinity Dublin and a consultant physician as well as clearly a competent composer. I very much enjoyed this CD, the result of much revelatory research and a paragon of tasteful and expressive performance.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Legros : Haute-contre de Gluck

Reinoud de Mechelen, A Nocte Temporis
72:19
Alpha 992

This CD brings together repertoire by a variety of composers for the uniquely French haute-contre or high tenor voice, personified here by the excellent soloist Reinoud van Mechelen. Also directing the ensemble A Nocte Temporis, van Mechelen presents a selection of haute-contre arias which would have been sung by the operatic tenor Joseph Legros who dominated the Paris Opéra for twenty years from his appointment in 1764. During his tenure, he sang the music of still familiar composers such as Gluck and JC Bach, as well as now less familiar composers such as François-Joseph Gossec, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry and Niccoló Piccinni and practically forgotten musicians such as Jean-Benjamin de la Borde, Pierre-Montan Berton, Jean-Claude Trial and Joseph Legros himself. Reinoud van Mechelen has a lovely effortless high tenor voice, instantly accounting for the enduring popularity of Legros. Supported by a superb instrumental ensemble, he wisely lets them occasionally play a purely instrumental piece for variety, but the main virtue of this CD is his lovely vocal interpretation of this unfamiliar repertoire. Perhaps inevitably, the musical standards take a marked upturn with the advent of Gluck, just as his arrival at the Paris Opéra in 1774 seems to have well and truly shaken things up. The reported tension between Legros and Gluck may have been largely confected, and certainly the music Gluck wrote for Legros to sing exploited his gifts in a thorough and musically imaginative way. An aria composed by Legros for himself to sing has an insouciant charm, but he was probably right to keep on the day job, singing the music of his compositional betters! This CD, the third in a series exploring music written for haute-contres and preceded by Lully and Rameau’s star tenors, very usefully and stylishly brings together some beautiful music, and I feel a singer who also directs his accompanying ensemble brings a further dimension to this fascinating and enjoyable repertoire.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Gluck: Echo & Narcisse

Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet
102:19 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS095

The excellent Versailles Spectacle concert and recording series brings us this intriguing recording of Gluck’s last opera, Echo and Narcissus, a light pastoral which turns out to be of much more significance than first appearances would suggest. As a result of a mixture of bad luck, bad timing and bad casting the work was a comprehensive failure at its first performances, much to the chagrin of its composer, who clearly felt it deserved a better reception. On the basis of this delightfully understated performance, I can see why Gluck was so frustrated by its lack of popular success. Not always known for understatement, on this occasion Niquet has astutely cast the piece with appropriately light voices and allowed the music to speak for itself. One particular virtue of the work is Gluck’s imaginative orchestral writing, making particularly imaginative use of horns and clarinets. He also largely succeeds in his aim to blend the French and Italian operatic styles – the ‘extras’ are given music with a light Italianate charm while the central characters’ more profound music recalls the music of Rameau – while you would have thought the generally undemanding musical idiom and the episodic nature of the piece would have appealed to the short musical attention span of the French court in 1779. None of these virtues nor even the patronage of Marie Antoinette herself would save the work from failure and obscurity until it was ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century. The precise and tasteful playing and singing of Le Concert Spiritual bring this little gem to vivid life, and while the positioning, with the chorus and soloists onstage and the orchestra down on the flat tends to flatten out the orchestral colours a little, the overall sound and balance are pleasing, and the acoustic of the Opéra Royal de Versailles provides just the right amount of resonance, reflecting the sound Gluck would have been writing for. It was probably much too late for the self-obsessed and hopelessly superficial court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to learn any valuable lessons from Gluck’s pastoral – in any case, Gluck never returned to opera in the last decade of his life, while just a couple of years after his death the entire edifice of the French Court was swept away in revolution. In many ways, the innocent simplicity of Gluck’s Echo & Narcisse evokes a whole era of French music, part of a culture blissfully unaware of its shortcomings and the gruesome fate that awaited it.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Berlin Harpsichord Concertos

Philippe Grisvard, Ensemble Diderot, Johannes Pramsohler
77:45
Audax Records ADX11211

This is a welcome recording of some unjustly neglected music.  Great composers cast long shadows and, in this case, those who overlapped with J.S. Bach and his son C.P.E. have not always had much of a look in. Grisvard and the Ensemble Diderot make an impressive start at remedying that situation with this recording of concertos by four composers who had strong connections to the Berlin court of Frederick the Great. They have deliberately avoided C.P.E. Bach in favour of introducing music by his near contemporaries. Peter Wollny’s very informative sleeve notes give short biographies and provide the context for the music. Christoph Nichelmann, Carl Heinrich Graun and Christoph Schaffrath were close contemporaries of C.P.E.; Ernst Wilhelm Wolf was twenty years younger. Nichelmann was a pupil in the Leipzig Thomasschule in the early 1730s and later served as second harpsichordist in Berlin for a time, until a personality clash with C.P.E. led to him leaving that court. Graun is mainly known for his operas and a Passion composed for Berlin. Schaffrath worked for Frederick as crown prince, and later for his sister Anna Amalia. Wolf did not actually work in Berlin – he served in Leipzig and Weimar – but came under the Prussian capital’s musical influence through the mediation of Georg Benda. 

The music draws clear inspiration from both Bachs, with a strong sense of Sturm und Drang clear from the first movement of Nichelmann’s D minor concerto which opens the disc. Schaffrath’s first movement is a muscular fugue in C minor, starting in the strings but later developed in an extended solo passage by the keyboard. Ritornello form predominates throughout these works, with extended solo passages for harpsichord, especially so in Wolf’s somewhat later concerto. The dialogue between soloist and strings is greatly assisted by the recording engineers, who have produced an excellent balance. Although there are only five string players, their playing and the recording quality tricks the ear into thinking that there are several more players in ripieno passages. Grisvard plays on a Mietke copy by Christoph Kern which has a full rich sound and good registrational capabilities. Cadenzas survive for the Nichelmann and Schaffrath works; Grisvard has developed his own for the other two which sound entirely idiomatic.  His playing throughout is both confident and nuanced, showing a real understanding of the style of this transitional period, with its predictabilities and idiosyncrasies. This comes across as very attractive music, played with energy and plenty of forward drive. These performances really whet the appetite for more of this music and the recording can be highly recommended.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Marc’Antonio Ziani: La Morte vinta sul Calvario

Les Traversées Baroques, directed by Etienne Meyer & Judith Pacquier
73:18
Accent ACC 24402

Often confused with oratorios, the sepolcro is a peculiarly Viennese form best thought of as a cross between opera and oratorio. The genre flourished at the Hapsburg court during the reign of the highly musical and deeply religious Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1658-1705), its best-known practitioners being Antonio Draghi (1634-1700) and Marc’Antonio Ziani (1658-1715). Sepolcri can be defined as semi-staged dramatic works performed on Good Friday in either spectacular fashion in the Hofkapelle or more intimately in the private chapel of one of the senior members of the Imperial family. The characters depicted were nearly exclusively allegorical, thus similar to the type of libretto familiar today from Handel’s early Roman oratorio La resurrezione (1708).

The Venetian opera composer Ziani arrived in Vienna in the wake of Draghi’s death, appointed vice-Kapellmeister in 1700. For the Viennese court he composed operas, oratorios and eight sepolcri. His La Morte vinta sul Calvario dates from 1706, when it was given in the Hofkapelle on the evening of Good Friday and has for its subject matter Christ’s triumph over death as a result of his dying on the Cross at Calvary. The topic is explored in P A Bernardoni’s libretto by five allegorical characters: Il Demonio (Satan), La Morte (Death), La Natura Umana (Human Nature), La Fede (Faith) and L’Anima d’Adamo (the Soul of Adam). The ‘action’ is carried on through alternating brief da capo arias and recitative, a typical sequence being aria-recitative-aria for the same character. There is also a duet (for Il Demonio and La Morte) and a final madrigalian chorus. A number of the arias are fairly florid, Il Demonio opening the work with a particularly bravura piece in a role sung at the first performance by the bass Rainaldo Borrini, one of the most highly paid singers at the Viennese court. The taste for contrapuntal writing at the court is much in evidence, with chromatic seasoning also strongly featured in Ziani’s score. Some of the cantabile arias have considerable beauty, La Natura Umana’s ‘Io languia’ (no. 30) being a particularly winning example. Accompaniments feature a rich assortment of brass and wind – pairs of cornetti, recorders, sackbuts and bassoons in addition to the strings, which include violas da gamba. It is a weakness of the present recording that only single strings to a part are employed, since we know sepolcri employed the substantial forces available at the Viennese court, which just a few years later is recorded as employing over 30 string players.

The demands made on the singers are in the main too great for the present performers, though the performance is obviously one of great integrity. Yannis François’s is a lightish bass-baritone whose voice carries neither sufficient authority nor personality for Il Demonio. La Natura Umana is sung by Vincent Bouchot, listed as a tenor but who, particularly in his first aria, sounds more like an haute-contre. La Morte, a countertenor part, is sung by Maximiliano Baños pleasingly enough but without making any significant impression. Much the most satisfying performances come from the two sopranos, Dagmar Šašková’s in particular bringing to the role of La Fede a sense of real commitment lacking elsewhere, along with some highly impressive chest notes in her angry recitative exchange with Il Demonio (no. 25). However, both she and the charmingly fresh-sounding L’Anima d’Adamo of Capucine Keller had difficulty controlling a few notes above the stave. The instrumental playing is good.

Although the performance is not ideal it is praiseworthy for its honesty and intentions. Les traversées Baroques deserve praise for reviving a splendid example of a repertoire little known today.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Charpentier: Médée

Véronique Gens (Médée), Cyrille Dubois(Jason), David Witczak (Oronte), Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet
170:43 (3 CDs)
Alpha 1020

It is nearly 50 years since William Christie’s first recording of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée (harmonia mundi) vividly illustrated that French Baroque opera meant more than Rameau and the occasional nod in Lully’s direction. Since then Médée has become firmly established and acknowledged not only as Charpentier’s operatic masterpiece – though I would argue that David et Jonathas (1688) should be considered its equal – but one of the peaks of the repertoire.  First performed at the Paris Opéra (Académie Royale de Musique) in 1693 it was one of the first operas given there after Lully’s monopoly was ended by his death six years earlier. Despite the presence of Louis XIV at the premiere, the opera was not a success, receiving ten performances before being withdrawn and not revived until the 20th century.

Cast in five acts with the usual prologue, Médée is a tragédie en musique that for once lives up its genre, a feature that may have some bearing in its contemporary unpopularity. By the end of the opera not only are Créon, King of Corinth and his daughter Créusa, the new amour of Jason dead, but in her fury at Jason’s treachery the sorceress Médée (Medea) has committed filicide. Yet it is measure of the quality of Thomas Corneille’s libretto that far from being simply an irredeemable villain poisoned by jealousy, Médée emerges as a deeply ambivalent character driven to madness by the ingratitude of Jason. The picture becomes more opaque still if her earlier services (the Golden Fleece) to Jason are taken into account. And it is more than just the text, for Charpentier gives to Médée not only music that is highly dramatic but in her act three air ‘Quel prix mon amour’ the most touchingly beautiful music in the score. Musing on whether she should murder her sons, the product of her love for Jason, also give momentary relief from the derangement from which Médée  now suffers, her servant Nérine a little earlier having spoken of her ‘Eyes staring wildly, her steps unsteady’. The role is one tailor-made for Véronique Gens, one of the great tragediennes of our day and a singer to compare with the creator of the role, Marthe Le Rochois, the creator of all the leading female roles in Lully’s tragedies lyriques and who was considered without parallel for her mastery of the declamatory styleGens’s mastery of the role ranges from the imperious in the infernale scene at which she is at her most powerful, displaying some awesome chest notes, to the sheer, pure beauty of her singing in the air noted above.

Her errant husband is given a poor hand by comparison, at his best in the tenderness he displays toward his new love Créuse, its cynical political implications drowned out in the exquisitely sensitive music Charpentier gives the couple in their scenes together (act 1, sc 5 and act 4, sc 2). The experienced Judith Van Wanroij (the cast listing spelling is used in the heading but here the more usual spelling is adopted) is at her best in this kind of gentle heroine role and here she is utterly engaging. There are, too, few finer stylists in haute-contre heroic roles than Cyrille Dubois, though here the fast vibrato that is a part of his voice does occasionally threaten to be a distraction. The only other significant role is that of Creon, which asks for little more than Thomas Dolie’s richly authoritative baritone until the great scene in which he is made mad by Médée (act 4, sc 8/9). Then considerable vocal acting powers are called upon, a demand met admirably by Dolié. 

Among smaller roles baritone David Witczak’s Oronte, the deposed suitor of Créuse, should be noted, as should the enchantingly fresh soprano of Jehanne Amzal in several comprimario roles. Her singing of the Italian air included in the act 2 divertissement is one of the delights of the set. Hervé Niquet’s direction of the prologue, the customary panegyric dedicated to Louis XIV with Glory, Victory and Bellone (goddess of war) doing the honours, is curiously – if arguably understandably – briskly uninvolved. Thereafter it improves significantly without ever becoming one of his finest achievements. Notwithstanding the set is required listening for all Gens’s many fans, who will also encounter a great opera and much excellent singing.

Brian Robins